The Enlightenment: Studies in Euopean History / Edition 2

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Overview

The 18th-century Enlightenment was one of the most exciting and significant currents of European culture. Battling against tyranny, ignorance, and superstition, it formulated the ideals of thought, religion, and expression, the value of science, and the pursuit of progress. Enlightenment thinkers undermined the ancien regime and provided the ideas for the French Revolution. Modern scholarship, however, has shown it was a more complex and ambiguous movement than commonly recognized. This book, now in a fully updated second edition, sympathetically explores the complexities of the Enlightenment. Synthesizing and evaluating the latest scholarship, it offers a new and comprehensive vision of this many-faceted movement.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780333945056
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Series: Studies in European History Series
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 100
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Roy Porter is Professor in the Social History of Medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

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Read an Excerpt

What was the Enlightenment? By Roy Porter

Just over two hundred years ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled 'Was ist Aufklärung?' ('What is Enlightenment?'). For Kant, enlightenment was mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error. He believed this process of mental liberation was actively at work in his own lifetime. The advancement of knowledge - understanding of Nature, but human self-knowledge no less - would propel this great leap forward. 'Sapere aude' ('dare to know') was Kant's watchword, taken from the Roman poet Horace.

Notes

1. Practically all the key Enlightenment thinkers were, indeed, male. For the role of women in the Enlightenment see below, Chapter 7.
2. Though it is only the final ambiguity of a deeply ambiguous book that Voltaire's phrase may also have a largely private meaning: we must mind our own business.
—From The Enlightenment by Roy Porter. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission

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Table of Contents

What Was the Enlightenment?
• The Goal: A Science of Man
• The Politics of Enlightenment
• Reforming Religion by Reason
• Who Was the Enlightenment?
• Unity or Diversity?
• Movement or Mentalité ?
• Conclusion: Did the Enlightenment Matter?

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First Chapter

What was the Enlightenment? By Roy Porter

Just over two hundred years ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled 'Was ist Aufklärung?' ('What is Enlightenment?'). For Kant, enlightenment was mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error. He believed this process of mental liberation was actively at work in his own lifetime. The advancement of knowledge - understanding of Nature, but human self-knowledge no less - would propel this great leap forward. 'Sapere aude' ('dare to know') was Kant's watchword, taken from the Roman poet Horace.

But only the most unquestioning historian today would pronounce, as confidently as Kant, that what we now know as the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, that body of 'progressive' and 'liberal' ideas and opinions advanced by the leading intellectuals and propagandists of the day, unambiguously amounted to a decisive stage in human improvement. Historians are rightly sceptical about taking the spokesmen of the past upon their own terms. In any case, 'saints and sinners' histories, which paint pictures of forward-looking 'heroes' slaying reactionary tyrants and bigots to create a better future, nowadays themselves appear partisan and prejudiced. It would be folly to hope to find in the Enlightenment a perfect programme for human progress. It should rather be seen as posing a series of problems for historians to explore.

For long, the movement suffered a bad press, especially in Britain. The 'Age of Reason' - the portmanteau term traditionally given to eighteenth-century views - was dismissed by the Victorians as a time of shallow and mechanical thinkers, overweeningly confident in the powers of abstract reason. Reason alone (enlighteners were believed to believe) would afford a total knowledge of man, society, Nature and the cosmos; would enable them to mount a critique of the political and religious status quo; and, above all, would provide the foundations for a utopian future. Far more, however, existed in the world (so the Romantics later argued) than was day-dreamt about in the armchair philosophies of the Enlightenment: not least, the imagination, feeling, the organic power of tradition and history, and the mysteries of the soul. Sometimes silly, often seductive, but always shallow, Enlightenment teachings had proved appallingly dangerous. Its much-vaunted humanitarianism had led (so many Victorians accused) to the crimes against humanity committed in the French Revolution and thereafter. Unsympathetic critics, nowadays postmodernist as well as conservative, still make similar insinuations [126; 146; 160].

The 'Age of Reason' found few friends in the nineteenth century. Romantics judged it soulless, conservatives thought it too radical, while radicals in turn were distressed to find its leaders, notably Voltaire, were at bottom worldly elitists, salon talkers rather than revolutionary activists. Only in the twentieth century, when the true complexities of the relations between ideology and action have forced themselves upon us, have the subtle ironies of the Enlightenment come to be appreciated.

For one thing, all historians now agree that the very labeling of the eighteenth century as an 'age of reason' is deeply misleading [61]. Many of the century's leading intellectuals themselves dismissed the rationalist, system-building philosophers of the seventeenth century, notably Descartes (with his notion of 'clear and distinct ideas' self-evident to reason) and Leibniz. They repudiated them as fiercely as they rejected what they considered the verbal sophistries of rationalist, scholastic theology, developed first by St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages (Thomism), and further elaborated in the Counter-Reformation. In the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men1 of the Enlightenment argued that experience and experiment, not a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge [135]. Man himself was no less a feeling than a thinking animal. No doubt, as Goya observed, the 'sleep of reason produces monsters'. But, divorced from experience and sensitivity, reason equally led to error and absurdity, as Voltaire delightfully demonstrated in his philosophical novel Candide, in which the stooge, Dr Pangloss, is so blinded by his Leibnizian metaphysical conviction that 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds', as to become utterly indifferent to the cruelty and suffering going on under his best of all possible noses [61: vol. 1, 197; 158].

As Gay has emphasized, the exponents of Enlightenment were neither rationalists, believing that reason was all, nor irrationalists, surrendering their judgement before feeling, faith, intuition and authority [61: vol. 1, 127f]. They criticized all such simple- minded extremes, because they were, above all, critics, aiming to put human intelligence to use as an engine for understanding human nature, for analysing man as a sociable being, and the natural environment in which he lived. Upon such understanding would the foundations for a better world be laid.

They called themselves 'philosophers', and this term (in the French form, philosophes) will serve - for there is no exact English equivalent - as a convenient group name for them below. (Occasionally the German form, Aufklärer (Enlighteners) will be used.) But we must not think of them as akin to the stereotypical philosophy professor of today, agonizing over the nuances of words in his academic ivory-tower. Rather they were men of the world: journalists, propagandists, activists, seeking not just to understand the world but to change it. Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie thus defined the philosophe as one who 'trampling on prejudice, tradition, universal consent, authority, in a word, all that enslaves most minds, dares to think for himself'. Voltaire was to the fore in campaigning against legal injustice in a succession of causes célèbres in the 1760s; for a brief spell, it fell to the philosophe-economist, Turgot, to take charge of the French finances; the leading American intellectual, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, put the science of electricity on the map, invented bifocal spectacles as well as lightning conductors, and also played a crucial part in setting up the new American Republic [17; 103].

A more rounded knowledge of such intellectuals as Diderot and Condorcet has dispelled the old caricature of the philosophes as dogmatic system-builders, infatuated with pet economic nostrums and 'vain utopias seated in the brain' [19; 125; 164]. Above all, we should be careful not to give oversimplified accounts of their ideas. They often popularized - to get through to the people. They often sloganized (they needed to, in order to be heard). But there was much subtlety behind the slogans. From around 1760, Voltaire went onto the offensive against the evils of religion with what became a notorious catchphrase: 'Écrasez l'infâme' (destroy the infamous one). Yet it would be simplistic to jump to the conclusion that he had declared total war on all religion whatsoever (see below, Chapter 4). Experience of twentieth-century police states should have taught us why the philosophes had to speak in foreign tongues under different circumstances: now they had to be blunt, now they had to hold forth in riddles or fables, in order to circumvent the all-present censor [48]. Straight-talking was not always possible or effective.

Once ingrained myths and prejudices are thus cleared away, we can begin to reassess the nature and significance of the Enlightenment. Yet that is still not easy. In his dazzling and sympathetic account, written in the optimistic climate of the 1960s, Gay depicted the Enlightenment as a unity ('there was only one Enlightenment' [61: vol. 1, 3]), the work of a group who largely knew and admired each other, or at least were familiar with each others' works. They hailed from the major nations of Europe and British North America. There were the Frenchmen, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Turgot, Condorcet; the Britons, Locke, Hume and Gibbon; the Genevan, Rousseau; the German-born, d'Holbach, Kant and Herder; the American, Franklin. These constituted the hard core of what Gay called a 'family' or a 'little flock' of philosophes, flourishing from around the 1720s to the dawn of the new American Republic in the 1780s, when the French Revolution was on the horizon. And there were many others whose contributions were only slightly more peripheral or less influential: the pioneer psychologists, La Mettrie, Condillac and Helvétius; the codifier of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham; the Italian penologist and enemy of capital punishment, Beccaria; the systematizer of political economy, Adam Smith; those draughtsmen of American constitutional liberties, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton - and others besides.

Like the members of every close family, Gay cheerfully conceded, they had their disagreements. Yet he emphasized the cardinal points upon which they were essentially at one. They shared a general commitment to criticizing the injustices and exposing inefficiencies of the ancien régime; to emancipating mankind, through knowledge, education and science, from the chains of ignorance and error, superstition, theological dogma, and the dead hand of the clergy; to instilling a new mood of hope for a better future ('a recovery of nerve', Gay felicitously called it [61: vol. 2, ch. 1); and to practical action for creating greater prosperity, fairer laws, milder government, religious tolerance, intellectual freedom, expert administration, and not least, heightened individual self-awareness. Thanks to Gay's generous collective portrait of this 'party of humanity', the philosophes can no longer be dismissed as a bunch of pointy-headed intellectual poseurs [59].

Yet Gay's survey must be our point of departure in illuminating the Enlightenment, not the last word upon it. Many problems of interpretation remain outstanding, exposed by further digging in the archives or produced by new angles of vision. For one thing, there is the question of the relations between generals and rank- and-file. Gay's decision to devote his pages mainly to the 'great men' of the Enlightenment certainly honoured the towering reputation - 'notoriety' many would say - of the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau, men often condemned by reactionaries, as if they had almost single-handedly engineered the French Revolution. Gay's strategy enabled him to get under their skin, and to show they were complex human beings, whose ideas changed over time in response to experience - rather than just being names on the spines of books.

But more recent scholarship has looked away from these 'prize blooms' and paid more attention to the 'seedbed' of the Enlightenment. What sort of intellectual life, what groupings of writers and readers, made it possible for such giants to flourish? What conditions helped disseminate their teachings to wider audiences? Who continued their mission after their deaths? As well as a 'High Enlightenment', wasn't there also a 'Low Enlightenment'? Complementing the elite version, wasn't there also a 'popular' Enlightenment [47; 84]? These are issues taken up in Chapter 5.

The choice as to whether we see the Enlightenment principally as an elite movement, spearheaded by a small, illustrious band, or view it instead as a tide of opinion advancing upon a broad front, obviously colours our judgement of its impact. The smaller the leadership, the more readily the Enlightenment can be pictured primarily as a radical revolution of the mind, combatting the encrusted orthodoxies of the centuries with the new weapons of pantheism, Deism, atheism, republicanism, democracy, materialism, and so forth. We thrill to Voltaire thundering his magnificent cries of 'Écrasez l'infâme' and 'Épater les bourgeois' (outrage the bourgeoisie), making church and state tremble.

But another interpretation is possible; one in which the spotlight should fall less upon the embattled few than upon the swelling ranks of articulate and cultured men and women throughout Europe, those whom Daniel Roche has dubbed 'gens de culture' (cultured people [130]); educated people at large, operating in the 'public sphere' [69] who preened themselves upon their own progressive opinions and 'polite' lifestyles, picking up a smattering or more of Voltaire and Co. - maybe just as a veneer, but sometimes as part of a genuinely new way of living.

Such a view would thus mean regarding 'Enlightenment' as a sea-change occurring within the ancien régime, rather than as the activities of a terrorist brigade bent on destroying it. So was the Enlightenment an intellectual vanguard movement? Or should it be seen as the common coinage of fashionable polite society? And in either case, did the Enlightenment actually transform the society it criticized? Or did it rather become transformed by it, and absorbed into it? In other words, did the establishment become enlightened, or the enlightenment become established? These issues will be examined below, in Chapters 6 and 7, and in the Conclusion.

Many other matters of interpretation hinge upon whether we see the Enlightenment as a 'militant tendency' operating amidst a hostile environment (ironically, rather as Gibbon portrayed the activities of the early Christians), or as a much wider ideology or mentalité. For one thing, we must broach the question of the practical impact of the Enlightenment in effecting change. The philosophes, as Gay has rightly emphasized, were contemptuous of dreamers with their heads in the clouds; they championed what Marxists were later to call 'praxis' (theoretically informed practical activity). When Diderot visited Russia at the behest of Catherine the Great, he explained to her at length that what her country above all needed were artisans and craftsmen [42: ch. 4]. Voltaire concluded his moral fable, Candide (1759), by having the hero assert, 'il faut cultiver notre jardin' (we must cultivate our garden - in other words, get on with things).2

But if (as Gay has argued) the flock of philosophes was 'small', and if most of them earned their living or won their fame as men of letters rather than as statesmen and politicians, can we realistically expect to find that they were Napoleons on the historical stage, possessing the power to change the very course of human affairs? Edward Gibbon, it is true, spent numerous years in the House of Commons as an MP, but, notoriously, he never made a single speech [119].

Of course, the chains of influence leading from attitudes to action are inevitably complex. Hence it may not matter that Voltaire never held office, because, we may point out, for many years he was in communication with the 'enlightened absolutist', Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia. Yet it seems that Frederick, far from heeding Voltaire, expected the philosophe to listen to him! Certainly, Frederick held advanced views (he was flagrantly irreligious), and he modernized the administration of his kingdom. Yet, despite the façade of sophisticated humanity, Frederick's Prussia - a militarized, war-hungry state indifferent to individual civil and political liberties - resembles a perversion of the true goals of the 'party of humanity' rather than their fulfilment [59; 60; 22].

What is at stake here is more than a matter of the influence of personalities, or questions of good or bad faith (did cynical enlightened absolutist rulers abuse naive philosophes?). Rather, it is a question of the function, no less than the aims, of Enlightenment ideals. The philosophes claimed that critical reason would prove emancipatory. Reason and science, they held, would make people more humane and happy. But certain scholars have recently been arguing that just the opposite occurred. When rulers and administrators heeded the promptings of 'reason', it was to increase their power and enhance their authority, in ways which often penalized the poor, weak, and inarticulate [55; 56]. Certain philosophes, such as the economists Quesnay and Mirabeau (known as the 'physiocrats'), claimed that free trade would increase prosperity. But when the French grain trade was finally deregulated, merchants profited and the poor suffered [104]. In a similar fashion, the undermining of religion which philosophes encouraged led, some scholars claim, to the moral nihilism of the French Revolutionary Terror [45; 146].

In their Dialectics of Enlightenment, the German philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno have argued that it was thus no accident that 'reason' so often went hand-in-glove with 'absolutism' [80]. For reason and science, far from promoting liberty, encourage an absolutist cast of mind, by assuming an 'absolute' distinction between true and false, right and wrong, rather than a pluralist diversity of values. Along similar lines, the French thinker Michel Foucault has contended that Enlightenment principles and absolutist policy fused, in the name of rational administration, to promote cruel social policies. For instance, various kinds of social misfits - the old, the sick, beggars, petty criminals and the mad - were taken off the streets, lumped together as an 'unreasonable' social residue, and locked up in institutions. Here what purported to be 'enlightened' action was in reality repressive [55]. Postmodernists have accused the Enlightenment of promoting the absolutism of imperialist reason, while masquerading as tolerant and pluralist [49; 126]. Thus, it is not good enough simply to applaud enlightened intellectuals for attempting to tackle social problems; we must also assess the practical and ideological implications of their policies. It was one thing to deplore begging and the humiliating effects of dependence upon charity; it was another, however, to find effective solutions to the problems of which poverty was the symptom. Chapters 3 and 4 will attempt to evaluate the political and religious manifestos of the Enlightenment.

As is well known, Jean-Jacques Rousseau long ago contended that much which other philosophes were commending in the name of reason, civilization and progress, would, in reality, render mankind only less free, less virtuous, and less happy [68]. The Genevan battled against Voltaire's unbelief and d'Holbach's materialism, both of which he saw as degrading. Yet Rousseau is always considered a leading light of the Enlightenment; and rightly so, for he was second to none in his hatred of the abominations of the ancien régime. Does not this suggest that the very label, 'Enlightenment', may be more confusing than clarifying, if such a motley army of reformers could march under its banner?

The problem is real, but it is not unique to the Enlightenment. Without such labels, generalization would be impossible. Sometimes we cannot in practice do without anachronism - one's contemporaries did not pin upon themselves, terms such as: reformers, radicals, reactionaries, and so forth. And the leading figures of what we call the 'Enlightenment' did, after all, see themselves as the bringers of light to the benighted.

There is, however, a particular problem with the movement we call the Enlightenment. That stems from the fact that, unlike certain agents in history, such as political parties or religious sects, it did not have a formal constitution, creed, programme, or party organization, nor was it committed to some explicit '-ology' or '-ism'. 'Dissenters' dissented from the Church of England, 'Chartists' endorsed the People's Charter. But there was no public charter of the Enlightenment, no party manifesto for the 'party of humanity'. Hence the Enlightenment is necessarily rather amorphous and diverse.

Yet, to admit this, does not mean to say that we would be better off abandoning talk of the Enlightenment altogether. Rather we should face up to this diversity. Thus, whereas, as quoted earlier, Peter Gay argued there was 'only one Enlightenment', Henry May has plausibly found four rather distinct types of Enlightenment in North America [103]. Taking May's hint, we might make a virtue of necessity and argue that such plurality, such lack of a sworn creed, may be amongst the distinctive and valuable features of eighteenth-century intellectual radicalism: perhaps its special strength - or maybe its fatal weakness, when contrasted to such a well-drilled body as the Jesuits.

What must not be masked is the fact that, for all its celebration of 'cosmopolitanism', the tone, priorities, and orientation of the Enlightenment differed from region to region and from kingdom to kingdom: a point which will be explored in Chapter 6 [139]. And this highly variegated quality of the Enlightenment must be borne in mind when we come, in the final chapter, to assess the true impact and significance of the 'siècle des lumières'. If we conclude that, despite the contentions of friends and enemies alike, the Enlightenment was not responsible for bringing about the French Revolution, would this be so decisive a verdict as if we concluded that the Communist Party failed, in some country, to spark a proletarian revolution? Enlightened activists perhaps never had such fixed targets in their sights.

In finally trying to assess the achievement of the Enlightenment, therefore, we would be mistaken to expect to find that a particular group of men effected a set of measures which amounted to 'progress'. Rather we should be judging whether habits of thinking, patterns of feeling, and styles of behaviour were modified, if not amongst the masses, at least among the many. Given that it was a movement aiming to open people's eyes, change their minds, and encourage them to think, we should expect the outcome to be diverse.

Indeed, it may be helpful to see the Enlightenment as precisely that point in European history when, benefiting from the rise of literacy, growing affluence, and the spread of publishing, the secular intelligentsia emerged as a relatively independent social force. Educated people were no longer standard, primarily the servants of the Crown or the mouthpieces of the Church. The pen may not have been mightier than the sword, yet Enlightenment words did prove dangerous weapons. Those making quills their arrows were not the groveling mouthpieces of absolutist rulers, but freebooters, those intellectual bandits who have ensured the intellectual anarchy of 'free societies' ever since. These implications will be explored in greater detail in the concluding section of this book. But first it is necessary to examine the revolution in thought which the philosophers were trying to bring about.

Notes


1. Practically all the key Enlightenment thinkers were, indeed, male. For the role of women in the Enlightenment see below, Chapter 7.
2. Though it is only the final ambiguity of a deeply ambiguous book that Voltaire's phrase may also have a largely private meaning: we must mind our own business.
—From The Enlightenment by Roy Porter. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission

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